How a NASA Scientist and MLB Use Games to Teach STEM Principles

Posted By Terri Williams on August 21, 2017 at 11:00 am
How a NASA Scientist and MLB Use Games to Teach STEM Principles

The key to getting students excited about STEM topics is to make it exciting and relatable. For example, professors who are also inventors attract college students to engineering. But, how do you interest students at a younger age?

A new study in the journal Nature Chemistry examines how board games, card games, and video games can be used to help students learn scientific concepts.

For example, Dante Lauretta, a professor of planetary science and cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and the principal investigator on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, created two games – Xtronaut and Constellations – to make science more fun for young students.

Lauretta tells GoodCall®, “The idea to create Xtronaut grew out of an after-school science club that I volunteered for at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Tucson.”

Lauretta says he discovered that many of the kids had no idea how a rocket worked and actually thought it was the vehicle that traveled to other planets.

“I decided to create some flash cards to show the different stages of a rocket; and then, I added the various types (brands) of rockets.”

The flash cards were well received. “The kids started trading and building the various types of rockets, and I realized that this concept could turn into a fun game that teaches kids about rockets and planetary exploration.”

Lauretta developed the game further at home with his kids.

“They were interested in OSIRIS-REx and made great play testers for the game.”

His goal was to make something that both younger kids and older gamers could enjoy and would play.

“Xtronaut was a big success for us – receiving many accolades including a ‘Best Family Board Game of 2016’ from Good Housekeeping magazine, so we decided to continue to develop new game concepts.”

Lauretta met Ian Zang, a game designer, through the Xtronaut Kickstarter campaign.

“The original idea for Constellations came from Zang, and we worked together to finalize the Constellations design – it was a great collaboration.”

STEM Principles

Lauretta takes great pains to ensure that the Xtronaut products are realistic and convey principles of science and engineering. “For the Xtronaut mission list, I targeted all the key planetary bodies and based the original spacecraft selection on previously flown missions.” He says the feedback he’s received verifies that this level of realism makes the game more enjoyable.

“For Constellations, we teach students about the different types of stars, stellar evolution, and the history and mythology behind the constellations.” He’s pleased that board games have experienced a resurgence, and are quite popular now. “Pursuing this medium offers an excellent way to reach a broad audience in an entertaining and educational way.”

While Lauretta’s kids loved the games, admittedly, they’re the children of a planetary scientist, and perhaps not “typical kids.” However, Lauretta says he’s received feedback from parents and other kids regarding the impact of the games. For example, one family stated that their kids were understanding and using such terms as “gravity assist” and “delta rockets.” An adult says the game makes him yearn for the days when he was back in his science class. The games are challenging – but in a good way.

There’s a shortage of STEM employees, and if his games can get kids interested in STEM subjects, Lauretta feels that his mission has been accomplished.

“STEM experts are needed to solve some of the greatest challenges we face as a species, including climate change, nuclear proliferation, national security, resource identification and management, aging and longevity, and many others,” Lauretta says. “STEM careers are high-paying, exciting jobs where people make a real difference in our quality of life, and our understanding of our place in the universe.”

Major League Baseball Fights Summer Slump

Students typically lose some of their knowledge during the summer months, but this summer, Major League Baseball teamed up with EVERFI to launch Summer Slugger, which is designed to help fourth- and fifth-grade students retain what they’ve learned during the school year.

Many students don’t participate in summer learning programs, and Tom Brasuell, MLB vice president of community affairs, tells GoodCall®, “Summer Slugger is Major League Baseball’s National Digital Education Initiative, a free baseball-themed course aimed at preventing students from losing critical math and literacy skills during the summer months.”

Summer Slugger includes 36 interactive games that can each be played within a span of 10 minutes. Players engage in a variety of educational topics, ranging from arithmetic and geometry to phonemic awareness and vocabulary. For example, in Factor Fielding, players can strike batters out by pitching only the balls that happen to be the factors or the multiple of a particular number. Word Catcher tests the player’s knowledge of letters and sounds; words are on baseballs that are zooming toward the catcher, and students must pick the correct words in a timely manner.

Students playing the interactive game are rewarded along the way for making progress and being consistent. These points and levels help to motivate players. In addition, players receive feedback in the form of hints and just-in-time instruction.

“Summer Slugger makes reinforcing math and literacy skills fun by integrating baseball, gaming, and competition with learning,” Brasuell explains. “The program is also designed to prevent the two to two-and-a-half months’ worth of skills loss that students often suffer when beginning the new school year.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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